The US on Friday announced punitive measures against Belarus targeting the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid a global outcry over the forced diversion of a European plane.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called for “a credible international investigation into the events of May 23,” which she called “a direct affront to international norms.”
Belarus scrambled a military jet to divert a Ryanair plane and arrested 26-year-old opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich who was on board, triggering a global outcry.
The White House announced it was working with the EU on a list of targeted sanctions against key members of Lukashenko’s regime.
Meanwhile, economic sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises, reimposed by Washington last month following a crackdown on pro-democracy protests, are to come into effect on Thursday.
Further US moves on Belarus could target “those that support corruption, the abuse of human rights and attacks on democracy,” Psaki said.
The White House also issued a “Do Not Travel” warning for Belarus to US citizens, and warned US passenger planes to “exercise extreme caution” if considering flying over Belarusian airspace.
The EU has also urged EU-based carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace.
However, Putin on Friday celebrated Russia’s close ties with Belarus as he hosted Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
With observers closely watching the talks to see how far the Kremlin would go to support the regime, the Russian leader said he was “very glad” to see Lukashenko and agreed with him that the Western reaction was an “outburst of emotion.”
Lukashenko said that the West is seeking to stir unrest in Belarus.
“An attempt is under way to rock the boat to reach the level of last August,” he said, referring to anti-regime protests following a disputed election.
“It’s clear what these Western friends want from us,” he said.
The Belarus strongman, who arrived with a briefcase, said he wanted to show Putin “some documents” related to the Ryanair incident and thanked him for his support in the latest standoff with the West.
The talks lasted for more than five hours, but their results were not announced.
Putin and Lukashenko have met regularly since August, when historic protests broke out against Lukashenko’s nearly three-decade rule.
The 66-year-old waged a ruthless crackdown on his opponents and has leaned increasingly on the Russian president amid condemnation from the West.
Several people died during the unrest in Belarus, thousands were detained and hundreds reported torture in prison.
The plane diversion on Sunday last week was a dramatic escalation, with EU leaders accusing Minsk of essentially hijacking a European flight to arrest Protasevich.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said has said that proposals are “on the table” to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy including its oil products and potash sectors.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Friday urged the EU to be “braver” and impose more sanctions against the Minsk regime.
After meeting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague, Tikhanovskaya said measures being discussed by EU countries did not go far enough.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Lukashenko that “it is time to change course.”
“No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime,” she said.
She also wrote to the opposition offering a 3 billion euro (US$3.7 billion) package to support “a democratic Belarus” if Lukashenko steps down.
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